Soldier Self-Identification

One of the most popular stories from our Civil War is that of Union soldiers stitching their names to their uniforms before Cold Harbor in June 1864, in case their bodies need to be identified following the battle.  Ken Burns narrates this incident along with an image of Union soldiers apparently doing just that.  Gordon Rhea, however, recently challenged this story in his study of the battle.  If I remember correctly, his argument boils down to the fact that there is only one postwar source that cannot be corroborated. 

I’ve been making my way through the recently published notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman and came across a very interesting passage about a similar incident.  On Monday, November 30, 1863 Lyman wrote the following:

We were bright up & early, for it was necessary to get the trains out of the way about sunrise, as they would be exposed to shell, when the cannonade opened.  All was expectation.  Yet such is the force of your surroundings that I felt no particular nervousness–to be sure I did not have to lead an assault–which makes a wide difference.  The soldiers of the 2nd Corps, that morning pinned bits of paper on their clothes, with their names on them!  As for Col. Farnum (he of yacht Wanderer fame) he said he considered himself under sentence of death, that morning for an hour! (74)

I was of no use!  We came back; the moment had passed, the assault was countermanded and the 2nd Corps might unpin their bits of paper. (75)

I was wondering if there are other examples of men pinning their names to their uniforms before battle. 

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

6 comments… add one
  • Kevin Feb 3, 2008 @ 10:12

    Hi Kelly, — Thanks so much for the reference.

  • Kelly Selby Feb 3, 2008 @ 9:55

    In John McMurray’s 1916 __Recollections of a Colored Troop__, he discusses searching for casualties of the 6th USCT after New Market Heights. When he located Capt. Charles V. York, he noted “a paper on which was written his name, rank, and regiment, was pinned to the bosom of his shirt.” (56)

  • Chris Paysinger Jan 7, 2008 @ 7:35

    I have personally found a soldier’s ID badge. It is a solid silver shield and had crossed American flags on the top. Running lengthwise down it is inscribed the soldiers name, company, and unit.(along with some foliated floral designs) This particular soldier was unit a sharpshooting regiment, “Birge’s Sharpshooters”. They were typically called the “Western Sharpshooters” though. Inscribed on the shield is “WSS”. They were the 66th Illinois. This guy was wounded outside of Atlanta in the “skull” and the arm. He had his arm amputated and moved back home to Ohio. In 1870 he was the census taker for his county.

    I’ve often wondered why soldiers bought those badges. I’m sure there was some fear that they might be killed and go unidentified after a battle. But I also assume that sutlers saw them as a way to separate a soldier from his money also. Kevin, if you would like, I’ll mail you a pic of it this afternoon. I’m at school already and don’t think I have a pic of it saved here. Chris

    • James Sullivan Mar 31, 2011 @ 9:18

      Dear Mr. Paysinger, I am conducting archival research into the Western Sharpshooters (“Birge’s WSS” from Nov 1861-Apr 1862; “WSS-14th MO Vols” from Apr 1862-Jan 1863; 66th IL Vol Inf [WSS] from Jan 1863-Jul 1865). I have reviewed over 1,200 Missouri and Illinois Adjutant General’s records. My goal is a complete regimental history. Although mostly lost to history, the WSS was one of the elite units of the Civil War. I am very interested in your WSS badge: where you found it; dimensions; back clasp; any information you have on the owner. I can provide all the information on the WSS you can stand. Looking forward to communicating. Yours respectfully, James Sullivan

  • Kevin Jan 6, 2008 @ 12:21

    Thanks Brooks.

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 6, 2008 @ 11:53

    I’ve come across enough accounts of this practice (plus adds for soldier id tags) that I think that what we can say is that the account of Horace Porter about Union soldiers before Cold Harbor is misleading, not in itself, because of the context in which it is usually set … as a unique act demonstrating the soldiers’ knowledge of the futility of the frontal assaults, a silent resignation to the impact of Grant’s butchery (cue the 7,000 slaughtered in less than thirty minutes tale, which Rhea also takes apart). Rhea’s battling against a traditional narrative, and rightly points out that Porter often got things wrong. Given the retrospective criticism of the June 3 assault, one is indeed surprised to see no confirmation of Porter’s story, and yet I think it was perhaps a more common practice than described (Rhea mentions the Mine Run example you cite).

Leave a Reply to James SullivanCancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *